Following on from the previous post about creating a slideshow using Boinx Software’s FotoMagico, although I was taken out of action for two days following my fourth COVID vaccination, I spent several additional days creating the background music for my slideshow, as I mentioned in that previous post. Slideshow music can be difficult because you don’t want it to be too prominent, but at the same time, it needs to compliment the images and content, so it takes more thought than simply sitting down to make a track just for the sake of it.
I’m not going to go into much detail, as this post is really at this point to point you to the video. Still, as the video starts, you’ll notice some simple Kalimba music, which is an African instrument that I have in one of my many plugins. I then spent some time finding chords that matched the subject matter, slightly sad sounding in places, mainly because of the feeling from the deserted diamond mines, and then I make it a little lighter with some flurries when necessary. We drop back to the Kalimba several times to break up the piano. After the initial Kolmanskop piano accompaniment, I switched to a hybrid traditional piano and electric piano played together. My wife thinks the flurries with the hybrid piano sound a little 70s or 80s, and she’s probably right because I was thinking Blade Runner as some of the notes and feeling of the music started to form.
Here is a screenshot of the final score in Ableton Live before I exported the music to embed into FotoMagico. If you click on the image, you’ll be able to see more detail if you are interested. Note that I designed the dark-teal theme for Ableton, as I don’t like the look of any of the actual themes provided with the software. The only additional thing to mention is that I also added some orchestral strings with brass and horns at various places, again, to add a little variation while changing the way I played some of the chords, hopefully making it a little less monotonous without having to compose and play each bar individually. This is to both save time and because too much variation can also get in the way of the slideshow if it starts to take the viewer’s attention.
I changed the timing a little, so although I’d say this would be around 18 minutes, the final video is 16 minutes and 30 seconds, which is still very long for a slideshow. This essentially represents most of my “keepers” from the trip, as the slideshow is designed to show you how much can be achieved during my 17-day Complete Namibia Tours. If you have time, do try to watch to the end, but I doubt with the number of images, it will be a video you’ll rewatch many times. Either way, though, if I can get my message across, that’s great. I hope you enjoy this. You can see this and over 100 other videos on my Vimeo Channel.
OK, so by the end of the previous episode I’d selected three sets of ten images from just over half of a total 320 images I selected from this year’s amazing Complete Namibia Tour. Today, with slightly under half of my selection left, I was going to try to select just ten more, but after a very picky look through my remaining images, I have 25 that I’d still like to talk about, so I’m going to whittle that down to twenty and do one more episode after this to finalize the series. It was such a productive trip, so this is a nice position to be in, and I hope you continue to enjoy joining me on my travels via the Podcast.
We pick up the trail as we made our first visit to the Himba village, where I found that the girl I’ve been photographing over the years was not there. She’d be 18 years old now, and I was looking forward to meeting her again, and was ultimately hoping to get a photo of her with her first baby at some point, but at least for this visit, it wasn’t to be. We did talk with the people that were there and will try to get her back for our next visit, but only if it isn’t too much trouble. The Himba haven’t been getting so many visits due to the pandemic, so there were a number of things that happened during our two visits, one at the start of this day, and one towards the end.
The first thing that I noticed was that the Himba did not seem to get tired of our presence. Usually, after we’ve been there for a few hours, they set up a shop, with most of the women and children in the village forming a circle, and sell bracelets, bowls, baskets, dolls, and other ornaments. Buying these things is one of a number of ways that we pay them back, but it’s also, in the past, been a sign to us that they are ready for us to leave. On this visit, they didn’t set the store up until I felt that the group and I were running out of things to do, so I asked them if they were going to set up their shop, through our guide of course. My understanding of the Himba language stretches to around five or six words, so I rely on our guide heavily for communication.
The other thing that happened was that we met the elder of the group for the first time when we went back in the evening. We don’t usually see many men, but the elder was sitting on a chair near the entrance to the outer corral and was surrounded by many young to middle-aged men. They asked to see my photos from previous visits, so we spent ten minutes or so looking through my photos of them. It was lovely to see their reactions as members of their group that had moved away appeared on my iPhone screen. I was also interested to find that they knew many of the people from the group that lives near the foot of a mountain near Puros, a few hours by car to the northeast from their village.
We were also thanked by the elder for taking so many provisions for them, and he asked our guide to make a note of what he’d brought along for them, and to spread the word that this is the amount of stuff they’d like when people visit. I was amazed to hear that some people turn up, take photos, and leave without giving them any provisions. An exchange like this has to be mutually beneficial, or it becomes tiresome for the people in the village. And for those that turn up and think that paying $10 for a doll will make up for spending one or two hours there, it’s really not. Let’s help people out a little more than that.
Anyway, to the photos… One of my first shots was this image of four Himba children in the back of a truck. This was only the back of the truck, just sitting in the dust, but it was a nice toy for the kids. I found it ironic that the boy in the center of the frame had a key around his neck, as though he was going to be letting himself in when he got home from school. The irony comes from the fact that none of their huts have doors, let alone a lock with a keyhole, so this was purely an accessory, which I thought was a nice touch.
By the way, if you are new to the Podcast and wondering how to see the images, note that they are embedded in the audio file, and applications like Overcast or the Apple Podcasts app will automatically display the images for you as the audio progresses. There is a page under the Posts menu with the title Viewing Podcast Images that has more information. Note too that you can simply type mbp.ac with a slash then the episode number to jump to the post for each episode, so you can see the gallery for this post at https://mbp.ac/783. If you support us on Patreon for just $3/month or more you can also see the full manuscript, and supporters for $10 per month also get a beautifully laid out eBook of each post, that can be downloaded for reading offline and it contains 4K resolution images.
We took a number of the Himba people inside one of their huts to photograph them and at one time had a mother and child inside, giving me the opportunity to get this next photograph of the child lit by the beautiful light from the hut door. Note that I actually use a few layers to darken down the background to almost completely black and feather in the shadow manually with the brush in Capture One Pro. To illustrate this, I’m including the finished image alongside the original image straight out of the camera and included the Capture One Pro interface so that you can also see some of the settings.
If you listened to the episode I did before leaving for Namibia, you might recall that I was planning to take my 50mm ƒ/1.2 lens along with me for these portraits, but I actually ended up leaving it at home, because my bag had simply started to get too heavy, and I was fine with shooting at ƒ/4 with my 24-105mm lens. It’s also nice to be able to zoom in and out as well, especially with kids, because they run around all over the place, making it difficult to frame them well with a prime lens. You can see that I shot this wide open at ƒ/4, with a focal length of 88mm and a 1/160 second shutter speed, at ISO 4000.
Next up, meet Tjiringa, a young Himba girl who I think may turn into my new project if we can’t get Makihoro back in the next few years. Tjiringa is very animated and can grimace as freely as she can smile, so it’s fun to photograph her, and I like the results. I zoomed all the way into 105mm for this, as she was sitting further away than the child in the previous shot. Although I do like a shot that I have of her from the doorway, I really like the serious, almost stern look on her face in this image, so it became my preferred image to share. So that you can see just the previous image as well, I’ll put both of these in together below.
I did, of course, process the photo of this little girl the same as the photo of the small child, using multiple layers to gradually darken the background, and draw attention to the subject’s face. This also simply removes the background, which I often find somewhat distracting.
As I mentioned earlier, we came back to the Himba village later in the day, to photograph the Himba bringing their goats back into the inner corral, and here is a photograph of them doing just that. In fact, this was one of the times when they were taking the goats back out again, and would then drive them back in for me and my group to photograph them once more. I just found this view, with the four ladies in full traditional dress, to be so fascinating, that I couldn’t help grabbing a few extra frames.
Following that, I got this next image which was probably my favorite of the session, with the sunlight catching the goat-dung dust through the wooden sticks that form the inner corral, and the ladies with their few children walking behind the herd again. There was a very relaxed mood, even when we had them do this a third time to increase our photographic opportunities, and one of the ladies thanked us for coming twice and spending so much time with them. I’m completely humbled by that, and as I have mentioned before, I’m so happy that we are able to have such valuable cultural experiences and exchanges on this tour.
The day after we visited the Himba people, we drove through the morning to arrive at our camp just outside the Etosha National Park, where we’d have lunch, and spend the next two nights. After lunch, we did one of their game drives, which I know to have a pretty good chance of seeing the subject of this next image, the amazing White Rhino. The last time I was here the owners of the lodge had bought a truckload of grass to feed the elephants and rhinos with because the drought had pretty much stripped the park bare. This meant that all of the rhinos were concentrated in a small area with the elephants, and that provided some unique opportunities, but it was so nice to see these magnificent animals simply reaching down for a mouthful of that beautiful golden grass.
We also had a few encounters with their lions, but the line of sight was very poor through the trees, so we only got a few shots as this male lion lifted his head reluctantly for a few seconds, before flopping back down to go back to sleep. The top left corner of this shot was very noisy, with heavily textured grass, catching the sunlight through the trees, and the right top corner was just grey dust, so the entire background was a source of annoyance. Because of that, I used a similar technique to that which I use to darken down the background of the Himba, but this was more difficult as the hair is really difficult to fade into the manufactured shadows. I think I made a relatively good job of it, but feel I’d like to revisit this again when I get more time.
I was also very tempted to convert this to black and white, as I enjoy that aesthetic, but I couldn’t bring myself to throw out these beautiful golden colors from the last minutes of the day, and it also looked too much like the work of my friend Christian Meermann. I’m fine with work looking similar to others, especially that kind of processing, as I’ve been doing similar processing on flowers and other subjects for many years, but in my mind, Christian owns the high contrast black and white lion space, so I decided to stay away for now.
The following day was spent inside the Etosha National Park. Not exactly big game, we spent a few minutes photographing these ground squirrels, which I thought were hilarious with their bot-bellies and that huge belly button. I have some hand-held video of these guys as well that I will include a few seconds in the slideshow I’m going to make soon, so stay tuned for that.
We also saw a black-backed jackal eating a snake, which I shot with my 1.4X Extender fitted to the 100-500mm lens, and still had to crop this to about half of the actual image size, but I’m pretty happy to have this. It’s a young jackal, so he did well to catch this snake. It took him a total of around 20 to 30 seconds to eat the snake, so I’d say he was happy for the meal.
Ten minutes later, we found a black rhino on his way to the waterhole. I know this is common knowledge, but if you’ve never heard how to tell the difference between a black and white rhino, here goes. If you look at the photo of the white rhino that I shared earlier, you’ll see that it has a very wide mouth for grazing, and the word White actually simply came from someone mishearing the work Wide, for the wide-mouthed rhino. The black rhino although markedly smaller, is about the same color, but it has a pointed mouth, using for browsing as opposed to grazing. He was apparently given the name black rhino simply to differentiate it from the wrongly name white rhino. True story.
And, as the sun went down on our second day at the Etosha National Park, we reached our ten images, so we’ll wrap it up there for this episode. We will finalize this series next week, but our final ten images, from our last two days in Etosha.
This week I’d like to start by giving us all a pat on the back. This is a milestone episode, as we just reached number 700! I’m pretty proud of the fact that I’ve been releasing this podcast almost every week for coming up to fifteen years now! I’m also incredibly humbled by the fact that many of you have been following my antics for most of, if not all of that time. Thank you so much for sticking around!
We’re going to do a regular episode though, and conclude my Japan Winter Wildlife Tour #2 travelogue series, with a visit to Lake Kussharo to photograph the Whooper Swans, and then on to Rausu to photograph the sea eagles. I once again have way more than 10 photos to discuss, so although we had some fun photographing the landscape a little after we finished at the sea eagles, I’m going to skip those photos and give preference to the wildlife work, because this is really what this tour is all about.
Let’s start with a shot from the Whooper Swans. As you can see, there was a slight mist over the lake, which was still not frozen, due to this being the warmest winter in Japan for thirty years. I love the graduated horizon line of the lake, caused by the mist and the swans here have an almost painterly look, due probably in part to the quality of light, but also the fact that I was panning with them with a 1/50 second shutter speed.
I wish I’d not clipped the wing of the swan on the right side of the image, but I’m pretty happy with this all the same. I also kind of like that it’s a grey cygnet that is leading the pack here, rather than an adult, which I think may have been a little bit too obvious as a composition. That was pure luck of course and totally a hindsight observation.
I’ve become quite partial to this next kind of swan-panning shot as well. As the swans start to waterski on the lake as they land, again, at a 1/50 of a second, the water makes some beautiful textures that I can kind of get lost in visually. I also really like the slightly ruffled feathers under the near-wing of this swan. The lake being thawed this year contributed to keeping the swans cleaner than they sometimes are when it’s frozen. I imagine it’s because they are not forced to sit around in the shallow water at the same location, rubbing against the algae and sitting in their own mess. Either way, this is a completely fun way to shoot these awesome, yet sometimes clumsy-looking birds.
In this same location the following morning I used an 1/800 of a second shutter speed to freeze the movement instead of blurring it, and fell lucky with this next shot, as four swans lined up with a mallard duck at the end looking as though they are just starting off on a race of sorts. The mist had cleared, though it was still overcast, and the faster shutter speed enabled me to freeze the mountains on the far side of the lake, so I consciously tried to keep my camera higher to include the top of the mountains in the frame.
Japanese Long-Tailed Tit
The little guy in the next image is a Japanese Long-Tailed Tit, and probably one of the cutest birds I’ve ever photographed. I’ve seen these before in the trees near where we stop to photograph the swans, but never managed to get a shot so far. Fast-movers though, at 1/1600 of a second, this tiny bird is slightly soft, so I increased my shutter speed for a few more frames, but I like this one the best, as he flew down from his perch, on which he stopped for a less than one second at a time. A very difficult bird to photograph.
Another fleeting moment in this next image, as a Northern Red Fox found something in the hole that it was digging that didn’t agree with him, so he ’bout turned and shot off like a bullet. I was not ready for that speed again, so his head is blurred, but I think that, along with his pose, adds to the dynamic feel of the shot, so I’m going to run with it, like the fox.
It was so nice to have snow, like this, until the end of the season. Just a week until the start of March at this point, the warm winter had taken its toll, but the occasional cold front had kept most of our locations topped up with snow, and from the number of hand-warmers we got through on the bus, I think the participants probably didn’t believe me when I kept saying that it was warmer than usual.
Indeed, as we got into our first morning photographing the Sea Eagles the next day, with the wind chill and the cooling effect of the sea-ice, even this mad-dog and ex-English-man didn’t have the nerve to call it warm. We did have sea-ice, but to be completely honest, I wish it hadn’t come down in the Nemuro Straits at all this year. The warmer conditions had meant that the Steller’s Sea Eagles were nearing the point where they’d find a thermal to climb to set them off on their way back to Russia for the summer.
They weren’t moving much at all, and the staff of all the boats were starting to wind down for the season as well. I would not accept that the birds simply wouldn’t move, and managed to talk the skipper of our boat to let us charter his second boat for the group for the second two days. This won’t always be possible, but it did give us the freedom to call the shots and salvaged the situation. The ice was closer on the second day, but we spent some quality time near the harbor wall as well, and got this next image, which is one of my favorite Steller’s Sea Eagle shots of the season.
Once again, I’m going to live with the clipped wings and tail, as I think the bulk of the shot is interesting enough to not throw it out. I love the detail in these birds, and those talons and claws look absolutely lethal! These really are magnificent birds.
White-Tailed Eagle Departs
Later in the day, we headed back down the Notsuke Peninsula, where I’d photographed the fox two days earlier, and although I don’t usually stop for sea-eagles out there, we did find the White-Tailed Eagle in this shot sitting in a more interesting spot than usual. We waited until he flew, and sure, it’s a butt-shot, but this is one that I’m happy with. The surroundings, with the driftwood and perch, and those beautiful distant mountains on the Shiretoko Peninsula made for an almost perfect scene for this proud raptor to start his journey from.
I actually pulled back to 366 mm rather than trying to go full-frame, to ensure that I included more of the surroundings. I also used the Advance Color Editor in Capture One Pro to warm up the orange tones, as I found it a little bit too bleak for the wood, which I somehow felt needed to look a little warmer.
Although it was difficult to set up and actually get them to go for fish in the water this late in the season, and the eagles were pretty much constantly flying away from the sun, we did manage to get a few images of them taking fish from the water, rather than off the ice. I was not going to give up on these photos on this trip, both for myself, and most importantly, for my guests.
Hopefully, it will look pretty natural to you, but I had to increase the shadows slider to plus 80 to bring out even this amount of detail in the dark underside of this Steller’s Sea Eagle. Definitely a rescuable image, and pretty much as good as it was going to get under the circumstances.
At almost exactly the same location, just 50 seconds later, I got this shot of a White-Tailed Eagle doing pretty much the same thing, but with much better wing positions. The shadows slider is up at 70 for this shot too, and for both of these images I warmed up the blues slightly, again, using the Advanced Color Editor in Capture One Pro. I just felt that it needed a slight saturation boost.
As I said, we’ll skip three landscape images that are sitting in selection in chronological order, as I like to keep my posts down to ten images when possible and finish with one last wildlife shot. It’s been a number of years since we’ve seen any, but finally, our luck was in with a sighting of a Great Spotted Woodpecker in the Shiretoko National Park on our final morning of the tour.
Although the foreground branch is slightly obscuring the back of her head, I really like how this woodpecker is peeking back at us through this window between the arch of a broken branch and a second branch that is holding it up. The smattering of falling snow is a nice added touch to help us wrap up this three-part travelogue series covering my last Japan Winter Tour for this season.
Before we finish though, I did my traditional walk around the bus to get a comment from the participants, which I’m going to play you now. Please listen with the audio player above, starting from 10:17, to find out what each guest had to say about the tour.
This year’s Japan Winter Wildlife Tours provided us with a bumper crop of Red-Crowned Crane photos, so despite my sharing six of them already in the previous episode, today we’re going to look at ten more, with a bit of information about each image.
The first thing I noticed as I worked on my selection is that I have become quite partial to the square crop, probably due to the new-found love of medium format with my excursion into film from last autumn. That aesthetic has really grabbed me, and I love the freedom of not having to think about whether it’s portrait or landscape orientation. It just is!
So, three of these images are square format, and two are cropped to 4:5 aspect ratio because I thought that suited the images too. The remaining images are all original ratio, with four of them being landscape on one portrait. For my portrait-oriented images, I generally just slip the camera into portrait mode by rotating it in the tripod ring, or literally by turning the camera when shooting hand-held. Since I started working with the EOS R just over a year ago now, I made a decision not to buy the battery grip, so I have to crank my hand over to reach the shutter button, but with these cameras being so much smaller than their DSLR cousins, that has really not been a problem.
Anyway, here is the first shot, which is from the Akan Crane Center. The first nine images are all from February 21, from two different locations, and the final image is from the following morning. As I mentioned briefly last week, the cranes were relatively cooperative this year and performed for us in openings more than they have been in recent years.
For a while, the increasing number of cranes had made it difficult to get shots like this, without other cranes completely blocking the view, and that of course, is a very good thing. The increasing numbers, I mean. But photographically, it was getting pretty difficult to make uncluttered shots. The warmer weather though has meant more farmland poking through the snow, and that causes the cranes to disperse a little, with more feeding in the surrounding areas, and less of them concentrated in the crane centers.
Another part of this is that they stopped feeding the cranes live fish at this location a few years ago, mostly so as not to attract the sea eagles, which could have brought avian flu, and that would not be good for the cranes. As usual, when something changes, many of the other photographers that bring groups to Hokkaido were complaining, but also, as usual, I instantly saw the positive side to this. The Akan Crane center is now less crowded, on the whole, and the fewer cranes, conversely, brings more photography opportunities.
Let’s Make This Time Well-Spent
As the Corona Virus sweeps around the world, there are of course people losing loved ones, and I in no way want to make small of that, but if you and your loved ones can stay safe at this time, let’s also try to find a bright side. How often do you really get time to spend at home, with your families, with nothing special to do? Usually, we gather at Christmas and other special times of the year, but then the focus in on the event, and everyone rallies around to make that special. Right now, millions of people are being asked to simply stay at home, with no special meals, nothing more than each other, or just yourself, if you live alone.
This to me is a wonderful opportunity to catch up on those things that we always wanted to do, but couldn’t really find the time for. Even just reading those books that you bought but simply put aside, or going through the hordes of photos from trips that we went on, but didn’t get time to look through, because life got in the way. Well, guess what? It isn’t getting in the way anymore, so let’s use this time to do all of those things that we can do when staying at home is the order of the day. These are hard times for many, and really, if you lose a loved one, or lose yourself for that matter, my heart goes out to you, but if you stay safe, and make it through this, we’ll hopefully be looking back on this outbreak in a few years time and actually have some good memories of how we spent our time in self-isolation. Let’s make it count.
Back to the cranes though. I love the ruffled feathers on this crane as the wind he created catches up with him as he touches down on the snow. With them being so graceful we often forget how much energy it takes to get these birds into the air and keep them there, so it’s a great reminder when we see this disruption in the feathers as they land.
As you can see, the light was pretty harsh on this day, with lots of texture in the well-trodden snow, but the detail in the feathers kind of makes up for that. It’s also nice to have a bit of a catch light in the crane’s eye, as we don’t always get that from this angle. We can move around to the right a little more, which I sometimes do if it looks like something is going to happen, but I prefer this location as I believe it generally gives a higher number of opportunities. I’d have been shooting this crane from behind if I was not where I was.
Ito Crane Sanctuary
Later in the day, we moved over to the Ito Crane Sanctuary, where we continued to get some lovely shots of these awesome avians. Depending on where you stand, and the luck of the draw, we sometimes find ourselves with a pretty low angle, shooting up at the birds slightly, which can be nice. As you can see in this image, it gives us a darker background for the birds, which I like to see some of the time. These two were doing a courtship dance on the hill at the sanctuary, with one of them getting slightly more excited than the other.
This was shot at 490 mm, and the crop is just to bring it to a 4:5 ratio, not actually cropping the height at all, so you can tell that we were relatively close. By comparison, the first image that we looked at was shot at 756 mm, using both the internal and an external 1.4X Extender on my 200-400mm lens.
I am coincidentally thinking of selling this lens, now that Canon has announced their upcoming 100-500 mm RF mount lens. As much as I have enjoyed using the 200-400 mm lens, since the updated 100-400mm was released that’s generally all that I am taking with me overseas, so I’m now using the 200-400mm only on these trips, and only really for the cranes.
I imagine that the Extender that is also going to be released for the RF mount will also work well with the 100-500, for a total range of 140 to 700 mm, and that will make it a very versatile combination.
As an aside, I checked the focus distance used for this shot using Raw Digger and found the Focus Distance Upper to be 42.04 m and the Lower was 33.46 m. I checked because the back bird is quite soft, obviously out of the depth of field slightly. This is why I still shoot wildlife at around f/11, but it was still outside of that depth of field.
I went into Raw Digger for these distances, so that I could calculate the actual shooting distance, and see how much actual Depth of Field I have, using my Photographer’s Friend app. I found that I would have been focussed at 37 meters or 120 feet, but Canon’s depth of field is way off. I’d have needed to stop down my aperture to f/115 to get that amount of depth of field at 30 megapixels. Even if I turn off Pixel Peepers mode, and use the archaic 8 x 10 print at arm’s length calculation, I’d have needed f/56. I think I’ll contact a friend at Canon and see if I can get some light shed on how these calculations are being done, and why they are so far off.
I like the shot either way, and was happy to see catchlights again, but my mind wanders like this from time to time, which is probably a good thing, as it helps me to think of cool new features for my app. 🙂
One of the reasons I like the Ito Crane Sanctuary is because it has some very nice trees, in particular the tree that you can see in the background of this next image. Although the tree is not complete, I think it adds a nice additional element to this shot, as a crane flew into the sanctuary. I also like that we have a few flakes of snow in the air. We didn’t get very much snow falling on this trip, but to be able to see the air here is nice.
This is uncropped, and I like how the tree on the far right frames that edge of the image as well, so I’ve left the bird on the left third, which also makes us feel as though he’s leaving the frame. He may have been taking off, but from the pose, I think this one was gliding in because a take-off requires much more frantic flapping.
Here’s another image with the base of that tree, and the beautiful grasses around it, helping to give some context for this crane which has just landed and is arching its back, stretching his muscles to relieve the tension caused by flying. I do this sometimes when I stand up after sitting for a while, but I don’t look even a millionth as graceful as these guys.
I do like to see the animals in their environment like this as well. Again, it’s the warm winter that’s helping those grasses to show through as much as they are. Often times there is so much snow that they get mostly buried. That’s nice too of course, with just the tree sticking out of the deep snow.
The dancing continued, to the point that even whittling down my selects became quite a task, let alone deciding which shots to share here, but these next few are some of my favorites. Although you can’t see the head of the right crane, I really like the way these two birds are weaving around each other as they dance, and I especially like that you can see the pink on the bottom of the feet on that right crane. That’s not something we see often, so was nice to get a shot of here.
This next image is literally one of my favorites from the entire trip. These are the same two cranes, just two frames later, and actually still the same second as the previous image, so this is an extension of the previous pose, but now, to me, they look like two flamenco dancers striking the same pose but in reverse, again, weaving around each other in maybe a tango, rather than flamenco, but a passionate dance all the same.
The last shot from February 21 is this image, as a couple started to move in preparation for their dance. It’s obviously not the optimal dance moment, but I just like the poses, almost like a couple at a family wedding, getting up to dance having had too much to drink, knowing that they’ll regret it in the morning but they’re going to do it anyway. OK, so I may be reading too much into that, but I have a vivid imagination.
This final image for today is from the following morning before we moved on to photograph the Whooper Swans. I was hoping to catch the cranes with their breath highlighted by the in the morning light but unfortunately, it was cloudy. The cranes still have to breathe though, and the dark background at the top of this photograph helps us to see that breath in the chilly Hokkaido morning air.
Shortly after this shot we boarded our big bus and headed north for a couple of hours to Lake Kussharo, where we’d start to photograph the Whooper Swans for a few days. Next week we’ll cover that, and then move on to the Sea Eagles to complete the tour and conclude all three of this year’s Japan Winter Tours.
This week, we revisit the Snow Monkeys & Hokkaido on my third and final Japan Winter Wildlife Tour for 2020. This is always an incredibly busy time for me, with three tours back to back, but it’s also a highlight of my year, as I meet all of the wonderfully talented and interesting guests that kindly participate in my tours, and this year was no exception. Our patience wasn’t tried by flight delays, and although I’ve decided to change the second wildlife tour to a landscape tour in 2021, the reduction in overseas visitors as the Corona Virus took hold actually made our trip more enjoyable, although I would have preferred that to be for different reasons.
Our first day with the Snow Monkeys on this trip was very similar to the first trip because there was again no snow. Even without the snow though, these guys weren’t just monkeys.
The opportunities that open up to us are different, but depending on how you approach it, definitely still worth being there, as with this first image, where I once again used the warm-colored background with the darker top, as well as the less diffused light to create a beautiful rim-light with the monkey’s fur.
This is a comparatively light-colored monkey anyway, which helps, but with well-controlled exposure, the results can be really nice. The only challenge was getting a monkey in a position where the background was far enough away to be completely blurred, and with enough contrast to form the rim-light.
I often find that even when exposing to the right, so that the histogram information is just touching the right shoulder, the monkey’s faces can still be slightly dark, so I generally tweak the Shadows sliders in Capture One Pro to bring that back out, and that’s the same if you’re using Lightroom.
That didn’t work as usual in this case though because I wanted to keep the top of the background dark, so rather than just increasing the Shadows slider for the entire image, I painted in an Adjustment Mask just around the monkey’s face, and increased the Shadows on the mask instead.
That enabled me to brighten the face without increasing the darkness of the background and losing some of that contrast that I was enjoying working with.
Another thing that I always enjoy doing, is walking down into the valley next to the river, to see what is happening there, away from the hot spring pool that is so popular.
On our first day, we were treated to a pair of young monkeys grooming (below, left), and I just love the pensive look on the larger monkey’s face here, but more so, the completely relaxed, almost meditative mood of the monkey being groomed. I also really like the background in this shot too. Once again, it was far enough away to be nice and blurred, but the pale brown tones make a nice change from the white, as much as I do love it when these guys are against the snow.
Talking of snow, although it wasn’t as much as forecast, it actually did snow overnight after our first day, and we were rewarded with some snow-covered patches as well as a bit of falling snow on our main, full day with the monkeys, as you can see in the next image (below, right).
The snow is a little dirty, and I have to admit, I cloned out two tiny triangular gaps in the snow where rock showed through, but it was nice to be able to get an almost completely white background, for the first time this season. It had snowed during the two and a half weeks between our two visits, so it wasn’t a completely snow-less year, but this was the first snow that I’d had, so it was nice to see.
You can see from this next image though, that the valley walls were still very much bare, with just a few patches of snow here and there. It takes a lot more snow than we’d had, and really multiple snowfalls, to cover the valley walls. A scuffle in the pool resulted in this mother and baby getting out, so as this young one clung to its mother for warmth, she surveyed the area and situation, trying to figure out what to do next.
As much as I enjoy intimately close images of my subjects, I do really enjoy placing them in their environment like this as well, giving the viewers of our images more context, although, as with most photographs, it’s always about how much the photographer wants you to see.
Most people don’t realize just how crowded this location can get, because most of the photographs you see are just of the animals. You’d be forgiven for thinking that this monkey is somewhat isolated in the mountains when the reality is that to the left of this scene, there are probably between 50 and a hundred people standing around with some form of an imaging device and a huge smile on their faces.
That is fine, of course. I have a huge smile on my face as well most of the time while I’m at the snow monkeys. The point is that we show what we want to show, and it can sometimes be deceiving, like the pose in this shot.
Everyone that sees this, including me when it happened, and when people look at the photo, recall the end of the Rocky movie, generally accompanied by a corny impression of Stallone calling out to Adrian.
Once again these primates prove to be some of our closest cousins, and for once, this wasn’t a fleeting moment. This monkey held her arms up for perhaps 20 seconds, then moved around to face the other side, giving us plenty of opportunities to record her proud pose.
Happy that we’d gotten some snow and some nice monkey photos, we headed back to Tokyo, and thankfully our flight was not delayed this time, so we made our way up to Hokkaido on schedule on the fourth morning of the tour, and made our way straight for the Red-Crowned Cranes, which continued to provide us with abundant photography opportunities.
The light was a little bit harsh at times though, so for this first photo, I actually drew a mask over the foreground and reduced the clarity, to try and take a little bit of the edge off the crunchy looking snow. It was nice to see the crane’s dancing together and many times on this trip they were kind enough to do it without other cranes getting in the way.
I put this post together in a bit of a jumbled order, as I selected my images, and came back to this point after writing the rest of the post, as I now know that I have way too many crane shots to share by the end of this episode. I still have 18 other images in addition to the rest of the shots that we will look at today, so I’m giving up trying to keep this series to just two episodes unless I can do a really good job of holding myself back on the swans and sea eagles later. I’ll cheat with the next shot too, sharing three images in one.
It can be a lot of fun to just make portraits of the cranes that get close enough to fill the frame with just parts of their bodies. The obvious shots are the head and the graceful poses that the cranes make as they go about their tasks, such as grooming and eating. I was trying to decide which one of these images to share and couldn’t, so I decided to just go with all three as a triptych. I anguished for a while over the order in which to place the images, but decided to just go with chronological order from left to right, as there flow became too choreographed each time I tried something that should have made more sense.
These photos were all shot at 560 mm with my Canon 200-400 mm lens with the 1.4X Extender. I actually found myself using a second extender for a focal length range of 280 – 560 mm with the internal Extender disengaged but then having the option to flip it back in for a focal length range of 392 – 784 mm. The image quality drops very slightly for some images, but the autofocus is still very snappy, although slightly more error-prone than when just using the internal Extender.
Here’s another shot made at 784 mm, with both the internal and external 1.4X Extenders engaged. I’m sure you’ll agree that the image quality is there, making this a viable way of shooting. I just really enjoy getting in close like this for some of my shots, especially with subjects as beautiful as these red-crowned cranes.
On the second day in Hokkaido, we visited the bridge in the town of Tsurui where the Red-Crowned Cranes sleep in the river, in what is supposed to be their safe haven. It would be if it wasn’t for the atrocious behavior of a select few visitors from neighboring countries. A few years ago, some Korean men dressed as government workers and went down under the bridge to get a photograph of the birds from a different angle, although the moment they did, the birds flew away and many didn’t return for a number of weeks.
This year, a Chinese man hired a taxi from Kushiro city to take him to the car park, where he set down his drone and proceeded to fly it down the river, once again startling the cranes, forcing them further back than ever. The cranes all used to roost where this foreground crane is now, and when they ventured closer to the bridge, they were only around 20 or 30 meters away, sometimes closer. These days though, after repeated abuses, they rarely come even this far forward.
I love this photo, but it completely saddens me to think that these locations are being completely ruined by the actions of just a few irresponsible people looking for a few seconds of video or something “different”. Before long the cranes will roost completely around that distant bend in the river, and there will be nothing but trees and water and a bridge full of disappointed photographers.
I don’t like to call out people by their nationality, as it really is just a select few, but it seems that people from our neighboring countries are the main perpetrators in these irresponsible acts, and I for one, would love it if someone was able to educate them a little more on how to behave around wild animals. If you think highly enough of something to want to photograph it, surely it isn’t too much of a stretch of the imagination to want to keep it safe and protected.
Or maybe the drive for being here in the first place is more about just needing a shot that your photography buddies have, and is completely unrelated to any kind of admiration for the subjects. And to be fair, I am probably thinking this way purely because we are neighbors, as I’m sure there are photographers in other countries that sometimes go too far to get the shot. To me, there are no photographs that are worth disturbing the animals to the degree that some people tend to be OK with.
Ural Owl Pair
We’d visited the Ural Owl’s nest that I know of in the area the previous day, and being late in the season, and warmer than usual, there were no owls there. After breakfast on the second day though, we went back, and the pair were sitting in their tree, looking as cute as ever. Being nocturnal, they sleep mostly during the day, but the larger female owl opened her eyes for a few moments to look down as something, before closing them again for the rest of our visit.
For this shot, I’d used both the internal 1.4X Extender and an external 2.0X Extender, for a focal length of 1120mm. That is really pushing it, but most of the time the images are still pretty sharp, as long as you have a fast enough shutter speed and accurate focusing.
Japan Winter Wildlife Tours 2022
As my 2021 Japan Winter Wildlife Tour is already sold-out, if you’d like to join me on this tour, please take a look at the 2022 tour page, or check my tours page for a link to everything that is currently available.